The seventy were returning from their indigenous missionary excursion with exuberant joy. They had not only witnessed incredible events, they participated in them. Sick people were instantly healed, sinners repented, demons flew out of the possessed, and many responded to the gospel of the kingdom! As the seventy reported to Jesus these incredible events, especially the fact that even the demons were subject to his name, Jesus responded by saying:
18 And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. 20 “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”
The first part of his response talks about watching Satan fall from heaven. I have heard preachers use this as proof that Jesus was there in the beginning when Satan rebelled against God and fell from heaven. In fact, this is sometimes brought forward as one of the clues that Jesus left about his divinity. Even so, how would this interpretation fit with the overall context? The disciples report to Jesus that the demons had submitted to Jesus’ name. Jesus responds by saying, “Oh, that’s to be expected, after all, I was there when Satan fell from heaven in the first place!” What does witnessing the fall of Satan have to do with authority over demons? Furthermore, wouldn’t Jesus have said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven,” rather than “I was watching Satan fall from heaven?”
I believe the solution to this riddle is to put this cryptic saying back into the historical context in which it was spoken. The seventy had just participated in wreaking havoc on Satan’s kingdom by liberating people from demonic control. Jesus remarks, that he was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Why was Satan rushing to the earth? Could it be that he needed to fly to the aid of his beleaguered minions? Or perhaps Jesus is speaking metaphorically to convey the image of defeat. Here are what a couple of popular commentaries say about this:
Baker Commentary on the Bible, ed. Walter A Elwell, page 820.
“When Jesus says that he saw Satan fall from heaven (v. 18), he is not speaking of Satan’s prehistoric fall, nor is he referring to a vision he had during the disciples’ ministry, nor is he predicting Satan’s future fall. He is merely describing in symbolic terms the impact of the disciples’ ministry. The kingdom of God was making inroads on Satan’s domain.”
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener, pages 216-217.
“Exorcists usually had to employ various incantations to persuade demons to leave; thus the disciples are amazed at the immediate efficacy of Jesus’ name…Although the texts often cited today as describing Satan’s fall (Is 14; Ezek 28) refer contextually only to kings who thought they were gods, much of Jewish tradition believed that angels had fallen (based especially on Gen 6.1-3). But the context and the imperfect tense of the Greek verb (“I was watching”) may suggest that something altogether different is in view here: the self-proclaimed ruler of this age (Lk 4.6) retreating from his position before Jesus’ representatives. (…the image of falling from heaven is usually not literal, e.g., Lam 2.1)”
So, in conclusion, this cryptic saying of Jesus likely reflects commentary on the report the seventy had given him concerning their power over demons. Furthermore, the notion that Jesus watched Satan fall from heaven in some antediluvian pre-existent state is pure mythology based on a weak biblical inference.